[LINK] China Joins Linux Bandwagon
Tue, 22 Feb 2000 15:34:01 +1100
Far Eastern Economic Review.
China Joins Linux Bandwagon
China is a key front in the David vs. Goliath battle between Linux and
Microsoft Windows, two radically different computer operating systems.
Beijing isn't likely to choose one over the other, but Linux may ease its
fears of foreign domination in software.
By G. Pierre Goad in Hong Kong and Lorien Holland in Beijing
Issue cover-dated February 24, 2000
At first glance, closed, uptight, communist China and open, free,
libertarian Linux make a strange pair. But Linux computer-operating
software is gaining favour in China and could ease the country's fears of
foreign domination and what it sees as security risks--specifically with
Microsoft Windows. In addition, the new kid on the software block could
speed the entry of China's fledgling computer industry into the global
"China has a lot to gain from using Linux," says Joseph Chen, chairman of
Chinaren.com, a Web portal partly powered by the program. "Everybody is
really hot on Linux," adds Fanny Chan, marketing director at Compaq China.
Why the enthusiasm? "One of the things that I think is the most important
about Linux is people get to do what they want with it," says Linus
Torvalds, who started writing the software as a university student in
Finland in 1991. Microsoft, then as now the dominant operating system,
keeps the underlying source code for Windows secret, forcing
software-applications developers to bend to Microsoft's applications
requirements and upgrade schedule. Torvalds, on the other hand, made the
software and its underlying source code freely available, and thousands of
programmers, free to fiddle with Linux's underpinnings, have contributed to
its development in the past decade.
The ability to freely distribute and modify Linux "is important--especially
in Asia," Torvalds says (see interview on page 12). Because Linux is
"owned" by its users rather than a single company, software developers in
Asia are free to customize and improve Linux to suit local needs and to set
their own commercial strategies. "Finally you can have real Asian software
companies doing their own work."
Last year, Linux accounted for 25% of server operating systems and about 4%
of desktop operating-systems sold worldwide, according to preliminary
estimates by International Data Corp. That compares with almost nothing
five years ago and makes Linux No. 2 behind Microsoft in server software
and No. 3 in desktop software, just behind Apple. An executive with the
China unit of a foreign PC maker says Linux was probably installed on 3%-5%
of desktops sold in China last year. This year that figure could rise to
10%, the executive says. Federal Software Stores, a Chinese retail chain
with 256 outlets, sold 20,000 copies of the latest version of TurboLinux
between its release in mid-August and mid-December, says Li Ruxiong,
Federal's president. That made it the chain's best-selling operating-system
package, ahead of Windows 98, Windows NT and Linux packages produced by
other compilers. Sales figures, however, don't tell the full story because
Linux can be copied and installed on multiple machines for free, while
Microsoft software is often copied illegally.
Another measure of Linux's appeal is the rush to support the software by
big global computer firms--except Microsoft. Linux is available on
computers sold by Dell, Compaq and International Business Machines, among
others; IBM's software division and Oracle sell Linux versions of key
Part of Linux's appeal for China is the chance to catch this wave early.
"There's an opportunity for China to play a significant role in the Linux
world," says Dan Kusnetzky, director of operating-system and server
research at International Data Corp. "I think there's an opportunity for
them to add significant value. That certainly could allow China to take its
place on the world stage as a software-producing country."
Several domestic Chinese versions of Linux, two of them backed by
government agencies, are already on the market. Linux development was the
only software project on a list of the government's top technology
priorities published last year. Linux software is widely praised in the
Chinese press while Microsoft is frequently criticized. "The Chinese have
long been dissatisfied with Microsoft and its operating system, but have
had to wait until a better alternative came along," the Shenzhen Special
Zone Daily wrote in January. "With the dawn of a new century, an
alternative is making its entrance in the form of Linux, and is making many
Chinese optimistic about the future."
Foreign companies see opportunities, too. TurboLinux, a U.S. company
founded by an American and Chinese husband-and-wife team, has just raised
$57 million in venture capital, based in part on its strong position in the
Chinese and Japanese markets. TurboLinux's investors include chip maker
Intel, computer makers Dell, Compaq and China's Legend, and a blue-chip
list of foreign software companies. "We've been asked by government
departments to host seminars. They're extremely interested in Linux," says
Iris Miller, one of TurboLinux's founders and director of its China
operations. "China has been somewhat behind in software development. All of
a sudden they don't need to depend on the West or anyone."
China's government and computer industry are interested in Linux for
several reasons, industry executives say.
SECURITY: Microsoft is a U.S. company and the Chinese government worries
that Windows contains secret "back doors" that allow Microsoft or the U.S.
government to spy on computer users--an allegation that Microsoft has
repeatedly denied. Qing Sihan, a computer-security expert at the Chinese
Academy of Sciences and vice-chairman of the information security committee
at the China Computer Federation, says: "Linux is particularly useful for
China as the source codes are accessible and there are almost certainly no
back doors which could compromise security." But China "has not yet made a
decision on what kind of operating system to recommend for computer
networks, so different organizations and ministries make their own
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: China's software industry will likely never own more
than a small piece of the domestic market for Windows-related software, but
could play a bigger role with Linux. "Chinese computer programmers have not
been able to create an independent operating system, at least not one that
could compete with Windows, so Linux is just the opportunity China needs to
catch up in the technology race," says a Western industry analyst in
NATIONAL PRIDE: China's economic nationalism runs deep, and Linux, which
isn't owned by anybody, offers China a chance to participate as an equal in
the global software industry. In an editorial on "information colonialism"
in early February, the People's Liberation Army Daily, which speaks for
China's security-minded military, argued that China must develop its own
software. It wrote: "Without information security, there is no national
security in politics, economics and military affairs. While learning from
others, China should not be under their control."
The government has been trying for 15 years to develop a Chinese operating
system, but has failed because the global industry moves too fast, says
Compaq's Chan. Linux lets China use standard, internationally supported
software without being beholden to any one company or country.
Compaq is a junior partner in Red Flag Linux, a Linux software package, or
"distribution" that includes the operating system and bundled applications.
Red Flag is backed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Founder Group, a
technology concern spun off from Beijing University. TomLinux, another
Linux distribution, is produced by technology firm Beijing Longshine and
the State Economic and Trade Commission.
A Chinese newspaper report in January that the government had banned
purchases of Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 2000, and
instructed ministries to install Red Flag Linux was denied by the Ministry
of Information Industry. Yet computer-industry executives say Beijing's
relationship with Microsoft is an unhappy one and they don't dismiss the
possibility of informal encouragement of Linux.
Microsoft has been savaged in the Chinese press. The attacks picked up
steam last year after Microsoft alleged that Yadu Group, an appliance
maker, used pirated Microsoft software in its offices. Its suit for
$200,000 in damages was dismissed. A highly critical book about the company
by Microsoft China's former general manager, Juliet Wu, made a splash in
October. Wu cited the decision to sue Yadu as one of several mistakes
Microsoft made in China, including its pricing policies, a target of other
Chinese critics. Fang Xingdong, a graduate student at an elite Chinese
technology university, may be Microsoft's best-known critic. His book is
titled, Arise and Challenge the Hegemony of Microsoft.
Then there are the security issues. The very nature of proprietary programs
such as Microsoft's software makes it impossible to prove that there aren't
any hidden back doors. Even computer experts can't tell how a computer
program works unless they can see the underlying source code.
"We're not shocked the Chinese government is concerned about security, just
as the French and Australian governments have expressed similar concerns,"
says Mark Phibbs, Microsoft's Hong Kong-based Asia marketing director.
Phibbs denies there is any back door into Microsoft products that might
compromise customers' security. "We just provide an operating system, which
itself has good security. If you want more, then you build security around
your network." Microsoft brushes aside suggestions of a threat from Linux
in China. And Phibbs says Microsoft isn't aware of any Chinese political
bias toward Linux.
Linux advocates argue that the software is secure precisely because the
source code is publicly available. With thousands of software experts
around the world examining, testing and using it, programming errors and
back doors have no place to hide. Linux is distributed as so-called
open-source software under a "general public licence" that allows anybody
to examine and tinker with the source code as long as they make any
modifications to the code freely available under the same licence. China's
interest in Linux is controversial within the open-source community because
of fears that China won't respect the Linux licence and will make
modifications without publishing the source-code changes.
Linux's advantages aren't just that it's free. Applications builders have
latched on to its stability--it doesn't crash very often--and good
networking capabilities as a bonus. Techies like Linux because it provides
everything they need to set up a computer server for Web-site operations
very quickly. As a result Linux is popular among dot.com start-ups, which
want to start Internet services quickly and cheaply.
Linux is already a major player on computer servers, but on desktop PCs the
going will be slow because Microsoft is so entrenched. "That's not going to
change overnight," says Cliff Miller, co-founder of TurboLinux. Still,
Linux is doing well in China's retail market and TurboLinux has deals with
three Chinese computer makers to bundle the software with new PCs. "I
believe Linux is going to take off in China," Iris Miller says.
The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.